Fresno County Cuts Breaking Public Defense System

     FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – Fresno County refuses to fix its broken public defense system, where public defenders juggle hundreds of cases a year and can’t provide indigent clients meaningful representation, the ACLU says in state court.
     “Our adversarial criminal justice system rests on the premise that the prosecution and defense each thoroughly investigate and vigorously argue the facts and the law before a neutral fact-finder, who is then able to find truth and do justice,” the American Civil Liberties Union says in a complaint filed on behalf of three county residents against the county, California and Gov. Jerry Brown.
     “But in Fresno County, persons accused of a crime who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer are effectively tried within a system where the prosecutors determine the outcome with little or no input or challenge from the defense,” the complaint states.
     The imbalance in the system is the result of failures by the county and state to satisfy their constitutional obligation to provide meaningful and effective representation to all indigent persons accused of a crime, the complaint says, alleging violations of the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
     ACLU attorney Novella Coleman told Courthouse News that Fresno County “consistently maintains that its public defense system has always satisfied the requirements of the Constitution, but the county is concentrating on the physical presence of the public defender at the hearings.”
     “The county’s stance doesn’t actually acknowledge that there are certain requirements that constitute adequate representation,” Coleman said.
     A typical attorney with the Fresno County Public Defender’s Office handles an average of 418 felony cases per year, even though national standards set the maximum caseload for felony cases at 150 per attorney, the ACLU says.
     And conservative estimates indicate that the county’s public defenders handle, on average, 1,375 misdemeanor cases per year – well over the national maximum standard of 400, the complaint states.
     “The attorneys are carrying caseloads that should be handled by three or four attorneys,” Coleman said. “It’s physically impossible for them to provide adequate representation to each of their clients.”
     Although the county’s public defense system has consistently had insufficient staffing levels, the real crisis began in 2009 when the county Board of Supervisors initiated a series of “devastating cuts” to the public defender’s budget, the complaint states.
     By the end of the 2011-12 fiscal year, the public defender’s office had lost more than half of its staff, the ACLU says.
     The public defender alerted the supervisors in 2009 that the cuts had severely limited the office’s ability to provide competent representation on each case. In 2013, the union for the office warned that excessive caseloads were jeopardizing clients’ constitutional rights on a daily basis, according to the complaint.
     The supervisors did nothing to address these concerns, failing to even respond to the union’s letter. So the crisis continues, the ACLU says.
     The county continues to provide twice as much funding to the district attorney’s office than the public defender’s office receives, and recently added 50 positions to its sheriff’s department, Coleman said.
     Because of this funding disparity, any claim by the county that it doesn’t have money to give to the public defender’s office “is just not compelling,” Coleman said.
     The ongoing problem is not just the excessive caseload that each public defender has to handle, but also that many novice attorneys are forced to take on cases beyond their experience and expertise levels, Coleman said.
     “If staffing limitations – which are dictated by the board of supervisors’ decision on funding – don’t allow for staffing attorneys at level 3 or 4, then those cases end up in the hands of level 1 or 2 attorneys, or folks who are just entering the criminal defense practice,” she said.
     “Without actual training, these attorneys won’t have the skills they need to adequately represent their clients. They are forced to learn on the job at their client’s expense. It’s the county’s and state’s fault for not giving the public defenders the resources they need,” Coleman said, adding that the crisis with the public defender’s office affects the whole legal system.
     “If the public defender isn’t ready, the district attorney can’t proceed without them. If judges are granting continuances because the defense needs more time, that’s going to hold up the whole system,” she said.
     Many times, indigent criminals will plead guilty to crimes they did not commit just so they won’t have to languish in jail while they wait for their case to advance, she said.
     Plaintiff Peter Yepez, who was represented by the county’s public defenders, missed a memorial service for his deceased child and his daughter’s graduation while he waited in jail. He ultimately decided to plead guilty to charges despite his innocence, the complaint states.
     Many criminal defendants like Yepez “literally can’t afford to contest the charges and they can’t afford to make bail, so they are sitting in pretrial detention, waiting for their case to be resolved, while their outside lives go on without them,” Coleman said. “At some point, these individuals have to decide whether they want to continue contesting the charges and keep waiting and waiting, or whether they should just plead out.”
     Approximately 69 percent of the Fresno County jail population is pre-trial detainees waiting for a determination of their guilt, she noted.
     “Fresno County has concerns that are even more exacerbated than other counties’ concerns because of the poverty rates and because it is one of the largest counties in the state of California,” she said.
     Nearly 25 percent of Fresno County residents live below the federal poverty rate, compared to around 15 percent statewide, and the county’s 9.5 percent unemployment rate is higher than state and national rates of 6.9 percent and 5.7 percent, respectively.
     The demand for indigent representation in Fresno County is therefore significant, with public defenders representing tens of thousands of indigent criminals every year, the complaint states.
     Despite the clear problems in the public defender’s office, the county has refused to even acknowledge that its public defense system is broken. And the state has denied legal responsibility by claiming that it is up to the county to make sure its public defender’s program is on solid footing, the complaint states.
     The ACLU is seeking an injunction requiring the county and state to comply with provisions of the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments and California state laws in the provision of indigent defense services in Fresno County.
     Neither the county nor the state immediately responded to requests for comment.
     The Fresno County Public Defender’s Office and District Attorney’s Office – neither of whom are parties in the case – also did not respond to requests for comment.

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